Russia woos India amid Ukraine crisis

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in New Delhi on April 1, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said ties with India are one of the key priorities of Russia and that the country appreciated New Delhi's neutral stand on Ukraine even as India faced increasing pressure from the West to condemn Moscow and help strengthen the sanctions regime.

Mr Lavrov held talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on Friday (April 1), a day after he arrived from China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has had regular exchanges with Russian President Vladimir Putin, also met Mr Lavrov.

India and China are the only major countries that have not condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We have been developing a special privileged strategic partnership with New Delhi and this is one of the key priorities of the Russian foreign policy, '' said Mr Lavrov in his opening remarks at the meeting.

He added that Russia appreciated India for taking "this (Ukraine) situation in the entirety of it and not just one-sided way".

At a press conference later, the minister said Russia is willing to supply any goods to India and that both sides could strengthen a rupee-rouble mechanism to trade.

New Delhi has bought an estimated 13 million barrels of discounted oil from Russia since February.

A press release from the Indian side said that Dr Jaishankar "emphasised the importance of cessation of violence and ending hostilities" in Ukraine.

While he noted the "difficult international environment", he added that "our bilateral relations have continued to grow in many areas".

New Delhi's neutral position on the war in Ukraine has seen it becoming a hub for diplomatic activity.

Other high-profile visitors have included Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, apart from top diplomats from the United States and Britain.

India has refused to side with the West, much to the disappointment of the US and its allies.

It has abstained from resolutions condemning Russia at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At the same time, it has also abstained from resolutions brought by Moscow and called for an end to violence in Ukraine.

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As an emerging economy, a non-permanent member of the UNSC and a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, India has found itself under the spotlight.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, whose visit on Thursday coincided with that of the Russian minister, said at a public event that she "would not tell India what to do'" but she highlighted the importance of like-minded countries working together.

Similarly, US deputy national security adviser for international economics Daleep Singh, who was also in New Delhi on Thursday, highlighted the close relationship between China and Russia as being detrimental to Indian interests.

"If China breaches the LAC (Line of Actual Control), Russia would not come running to India's defence".

India and China had a major border blowout in 2020.

Washington has been putting pressure on New Delhi over Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden calling India "shaky" on Russia. He has also framed the crisis as a fight between democracy and autocracy.

The US is keen for India to follow Western sanctions to ramp up the pressure on Russia.

However, analysts said that India would stick to its neutral position.

"There is a new world order emerging where the West - Europe and the US - is getting more united. Lavrov's visit has to be seen in that context, to explain what their position is, the next steps and how India is important in this new world where Russia is being isolated," said Jindal Global University adjunct professor Anuradha M. Chenoy.

She noted that if Russia were to continue offering discounted oil, India would grab the opportunity as it is an "energy-starved country".

Russia is also India's largest weapons supplier, with some 60 per cent of its weapons of Russian vintage.

But ties in recent years have gone through shifts as India has drawn closer to the US due to converging concerns over the rise of China. Russia, in turn, has drawn closer to China.

But the crisis in Ukraine has highlighted that in spite of growing proximity, India would not automatically follow the US on global issues.

Dr Jaishankar, during an event with Ms Truss, defended the decision to buy Russian oil.

"It is interesting because we have seen for some time what looks almost like a campaign on this issue," he said, highlighting how reports suggest that Europe has bought "15 per cent more oil and gas from Russia than it did the month before".

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